The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was born in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II. NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, provided a famous description of what he saw as the organization’s goal: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” Since that time, the strength of the relationship between the European states and the United States has fluctuated, along with the credibility of an effective NATO defense against a prospective Soviet invasion. With the end of the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact, the traditional rationale for NATO’s existence vanished, so the organization’s supporters had to look for a new raison d’etre which could keep them united against emerging threats.
European Unity and Divides
United States, for more than a century, has benefited from a divided and dependent Europe. The disappearance of the Soviet threat and the formation of European Union both jolted the purpose for which NATO was needed. Furthermore, the United States now wants both Germany and Japan, the losers of World War II, to share more of the international burden, especially in the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in dealing with Russia. In general, though, Germany and France have both begun to take a direction towards a more independent foreign policy, which falls more in line with their historic status and role in Europe and in the world. In the backdrop of global economic woes, these pressures to some extent have also forced the United States to rethink its strategy in Afghanistan.
In the past, a Russian threat would have been enough to keep the Europeans united. But these powers, while concerned about China’s clout, are no longer sure of American leadership and wisdom and are more inclined to follow and develop their own path. As long as there is no direct threat to the security of Europe, it would be hard to keep them under one roof and this makes it harder for the United States to frame international agendas. The Russian’s are cleverly exploiting this rift and as a result, the United States has to rely more on Eastern European republics for support. Because of their history and geography, Eastern European countries believe they have much to fear from the resurgent bear. The United States on the contrary desires unified Germany to take on a more aggressive stance towards Russia, on which Germany is heavily dependent for energy resources.
France has been one of the uneasy members of the alliance that had initially left NATO in 1958, on quarrels related to its unequal status vis-a-vis the special relationship of United States and the United Kingdom. Then president of France Charles De Gaulle sought to establish a tripartite commission which would put France on equal footing with United States and United Kingdom. It had also wanted to extend the geographic reach of NATO to include Algeria, where France needed NATO’s help in fighting an insurgency. Furthermore, France wanted maneuvering room to negotiate its own peace with communist Eastern European nations, independent of NATO-Warsaw rivalries. (Under Nicholas Sarkozy, France has returned as a member of NATO since April 2009.)
The events of 911 seemed to breathe new life into NATO; the United States has attempted to enlist it in the fight against international terror. Now, it’s the United States not France, which wants to utilize NATO alliance to fight extremists. Another reason for the revival of NATO has come came in the form of resurgent Russia, for which many analysts believe, the alliance itself was to blame. According to them, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States had assured the Russians that NATO would not expand into its traditional sphere of influence. Now that NATO has offered Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plan (MAP) that trust has been violated. (The Membership Action Plan is a NATO programme of advice, assistance and practical support tailored to the individual needs of countries wishing to join the Alliance.). From the American perspective, Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats also play a useful role in keeping the Europeans worried and tied to NATO.
Evolution of SCO Alliance
One must take into account another factor in order to fully understand the evolution of NATO and its future role: the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is not only the result of an emerging alliance between China and Russia; it is competing with NATO for resources in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Defeat in Afghanistan would not just be damaging to the United States but a lethal blow for NATO, probably strengthening the SCO. Similarly, for SCO to be really effective it is essential that Chinese and the Russians continue to cooperate and compromise towards their common interests.
In the context of South Asia, the tussle between NATO and the SCO assumes an especially interesting twist. Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis both alliances is an important one. Not only is the country a key “non-NATO Ally,” but it also has an Observer Status (which it shares with India and Iran) on the SCO Alliance. NATO wants Pakistan on its side so as to shape and implement its plans for the region and gain access to the region’s energy resources. On the other hand, Russia and China also wish to get their hands on these resources; one can see this in the just agreed upon Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline (An alternative gas-pipeline project favored by United States is the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – TAPI).
United States is equally courting to India and Pakistan to keep them away from SCO. Both India and Pakistan seem to be in no hurry to choose sides at this juncture. In case of Iran, it has good relations with China and Russia but none with United States. Things are beginning to change, as Iran is an important country not just for stabilizing Iraq but for Afghanistan and Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. This has put Iran under tremendous external pressure.
For the moment though, all parties are cooperating against the threat of extremism. As mentioned above Afghanistan conflict is an issue that can make or break the credibility of these alliances. The cooperation and competition amongst these alliances cannot exist simultaneously forever.
It could very well be that there will be a reversion to the dynamics which existed in the South Asia region during the colonial era. In those days, Great Britain and France competed with each other and tried to keep the Russians out of the region. Later the American took over this role from Great Britain. If Germany and France continue to be lukewarm towards NATO and hew to an independent line regarding China and Russia, the United States will likely retaliate by blocking them out of the potential future benefits of following its lead. How this complicates the operations of the UN Security Council is anyone’s guess.
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